Broken City

Posted on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Another January weekend, another dumb shoot-out.

Last weekend, it was 1950’s Los Angeles.  This week, it’s contemporary New York.  It’s still about corruption, betrayal, and bang-bang.  Co-producer Mark Wahlberg plays Billy, a cop exonerated after he killed a suspect because there was not enough evidence to refute his claim of self-defense.  Mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe in a very bad Boehner-orange spray tan) congratulates him and then explains with engaging directness and considerable charm why Billy still has to leave the police force.  “It is a necessity that we remain un-f’d.”

Seven years later, Billy is almost making a living as a private investigator.  He is good at his job but he is too nice a guy to push for payment.  His loyal and very beautiful assistant Katy (a likably sharp performance by Alona Tal) reminds him that they are broke because their overdue accounts amount to $42,000, which leads to a pointless scene of phone calls using assorted tactics to get people to pay.  There are a bunch more pointless scenes in the film but I cannot say they are any worse than the pointed ones.

Billy hears from Mayor Hostetler, who wants to hire him for the same purpose as all of his other clients but for a lot more money.  Hostetler wants to pay Billy $50,000 to find out who is having an affair with his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta Jones).  Billy takes the pictures but then, just as the mayor snatches them out of his pocket, it begins to dawn on him (he may be a cop, but he is not much of a detective) that things may not be what they seem and people may not be telling the truth, starting with the mayor.

All of this is happening in the midst of a tough re-election campaign.  Hostetler likes to come across as one of the guys, rough, sometimes crude, but effective.  He tries to paint his opponent, Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper) — names are not this movie’s strong point — as an out of touch elitist who comes from Connecticut and went to Harvard. But a controversial sweetheart sale of public housing to a private developer (a seedy-looking Griffin Dunne)  has tightened the race.  Guess what!  That surveillance job was not about an affair after all.  One clue?  Despite a massive shredding operation in the bad guy’s expensive lair/manor, the evidence conveniently shows up in the garbage can in mint condition, not even any coffee grounds or banana peels stuck to it.

It feels like they were making this up as they went along, without regard to what has already happened.  A detour about Billy’s actress girlfriend (the very lovely Natalie Martinez) and his fall off the wagon just drags things out in between the chases and shoot-outs.  It’s too bad to see top talent slumming in an underwritten, under-thought, under-whelming piece of multiplex fodder.

Parents should know that this film has constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and explicit situations with brief nudity, drinking and drunkenness, shooting, fighting, car crash, corruption, rape (offscreen), and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion:  What did Billy’s relationship with Natalie tell you about him?  Why did he visit her parents?  What will happen to him?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man”

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Crime Politics

Hyde Park on Hudson

Posted on December 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm

When Franklin Roosevelt’s sixth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (pronounced “sook-lee”) died at age 99, a cache of letters was found in a suitcase under her bed.  Everyone knew she had spent years working near Roosevelt, and most thought he had kindly provided for her by allowing her to act as his cataloger and librarian.  But the letters revealed a close and tender friendship and implied that there was more.  And so, in this fact-based story of the first visit to the United States by a British monarch, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (and Franklin’s redoutable mother) welcomed King George V (that’s “The King’s Speech” king, no longer looking like Colin Firth but recognizable by his stutter) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, the parents of the current about-to-become-a-great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth II to the Roosevelt’s summer home in New York State.  And fed them hot dogs.

So there are really two movies here.  Bill Murray is superb as Roosevelt, famously described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as having “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”  Murray gives a beautifully subtle, complex and fully immersed performance as the patrician President whose polio-induced paralysis gave him a deeper understanding and sense of purpose.  The scene where he has an impromptu late-night meeting with the young king is one of the best of the year.

But the movie gets soapy and uncomfortably speculative when it focuses on the relationship between Daisy and the President.  Is it a romance?  Is it a story about Daisy’s spirit enlarging as she goes from adolescent crush to a sort of sister-wife support group with the other women in FDR’s harem, including his secretary and, of course, his wife Eleanor, beautifully played with asperity and an endearing sense of rebellion by Murray’s “Rushmore” co-star Olivia Williams. But the film wavers uncertainly between geopolitics illuminated by personality (well handled) and the schoolgirl longings and skeezy predation of his relationship with Daisy.

Parents should know that this film has frank sexual references and situations (one briefly explicit) including approving depiction of adultery, some strong language, and social drinking as well as a positive portrayal of characters with disabilities.

Family discussion:  Why do the women forgive Roosevelt?  What did the King learn from his conversation with Roosevelt?  What did they have in common?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Sunrise at Campobello,” and the book Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley by historian Geoffrey Ward

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Based on a true story Biography Drama Politics

Lincoln

Posted on November 8, 2012 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Battle violence with some graphic images, sad deaths, assassination
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2012
Date Released to DVD: March 25, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B009AMANH4

The first question about big, prestige films like “Lincoln” is always where it falls on what I call the spinach scale.  Will I tell people to see it because it is entertaining or because it is good for them.  For all its meticulous attention to historical verisimilitude and its extended depiction of people in rooms talking about a Constitutional amendment, “Lincoln” is not an eat-your-spinach-because-it’s-good-for-you movie.  It is a robust, engrossing story that illuminates our own time as well as the era of the 16th and arguably greatest President.

Task number one for director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America), and star Daniel Day-Lewis is to make the icon into a human being, to show us his greatness but also his humanity.  In our hearts, this almost-literally larger than life man sounds like James Earl Jones — we can almost hear that deep voice reciting the Gettysburg address.  But those who actually heard Lincoln speak described his voice as high, thin, and reedy-sounding.  It may be jarring at first, but in an exceptionally well-designed introductory scene Day-Lewis deploys that timbre with such gentleness and modesty that it quickly becomes an asset not just to his performance but to our understanding of this man.

Lincoln is sitting quietly, talking to a small group of Union soldiers, two black and two white.  We see immediately that the soldiers respect him greatly — they can recite the Gettysburg address from memory — but that they feel completely comfortable being honest with him about their experiences and their recommendations.  What we feel immediately is that he is both respected and trusted, and that he has a rare ability to listen.  He may not be a modest man — at one point he thunders, “I am the President of the United States and clothed in immense power!”  But he is a humble man, who understands that he can best lead by allowing others to move forward with him.  He loves to share stories, more than others love to hear them.  But like a great preacher, he knows that it is the stories that persuade people.  Everyone softens a little for a story, especially one with a punchline.  And a story helps the listener toward the conclusion without feeling pushed.

A century and a half later, audiences may be surprised to see how little has changed.  Indeed, even the vilest insults of the Twitterverse and the shrillest complaints of Super-PAC ads do not touch the comments made by Members of Congress, who do not hesitate to question each other’s integrity or sanity.  “Fatuous nincompoop,” for example.

Audiences may be more surprised to find that “Democrat” and “Republican” seem to have switched places.  What has not changed is the way that politics attracts people of great cowardice and even greater courage, of people who hold on and people who reach forward, of people who want to help themselves and people who want to help others at great cost to themselves, including those who can never thank them.

When Lincoln decides that his most important priority is eradicating slavery through approval of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, his team brings in a trio of lobbyists (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a wonderfully puckish James Spader) who are as cheerfully cynical as anyone on K Street today.  Through a combination of bribes and threats, they work to get the votes they need.  It is clear the Civil War is about to end, and if the South is readmitted to the Union, it will never pass.  Lincoln understood that the only way to keep the country together was to take its most divisive issue off the table.  He also understood that doing so would have its own terrible costs.  Even those who supported the Amendment had to make compromises, including its most ardent defender (a scene-stealing performance by Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens).

Kushner and Spielberg, like their main character, recognize the power of story-telling, and this illuminating tale would make its subject proud and perhaps to inspire all of us to aspire to that as well.

Parents should know that this film has some battle scenes, graphic images in hospital including amputated limbs, some strong language including one f-word, sad losses, drinking, and smoking.

Family discussion: There are a lot of compromises in this movie and a lot of shading of the truth – which were the most difficult?  Why was the passage of the 13th amendment so important?  What moments in the film reminded you of today’s political debates and strategies?

If you like this, try: some of the other portrayals of Lincoln on film, including “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “Abe Lincoln of Illinois” and the musical about the Declaration of Independence, “1776”

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Based on a true story Biography Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Politics War

Argo

Posted on October 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some violent images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Scenes of mob violence, hostages, references to terrorism
Diversity Issues: Ethnic, political, and cultural differences a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2012
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00AHTYGRW

The movie within the movie, an outlandish space fantasy possibly named “Argo” for Jason’s vessel in the ancient Greek myth, may be more believable than the true and recently declassified story that surrounds it.  In 1979, when American State Department employees were taken hostage in Iran, six escaped and were hidden by the Canadian ambassador.  A CIA “exfiltration” expert who specializes in getting people out of difficult situations, rescued them by disguising them as members of a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a fictitious Hollywood movie called “Argo.”

It is like an episode of the television series “Mission: Impossible” except that (1) it really happened and (2) it was much, much harder.  Unlike “Mission: Impossible,” the people creating an elaborate false reality in order to fool the other side had to work with civilians.  And they had to navigate a lot of bureaucratic, diplomatic, and national-security-related internal conflicts in a volatile environment with limited sharing of information.  James Bond has something more valuable than a license to kill.  He has a license to pretty much do whatever he wants with M ready to stand behind him.  But Tony Mendez (played by director Ben Affleck) has to make a lot of literally life-or-death decisions very quickly and yet is still subject to oversight by layers of people with different priorities and points of view.

Affleck, following “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” (and a screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting”) is no longer one of Hollywood’s most promising new directors — he has arrived.  This film works on every level.  Even though we know the Americans were rescued (Canada’s embassy was given a prominent location near the White House in gratitude for their efforts), the tension is ferocious.  The scenes in Hollywood, with John Goodman and a sure-to-be-nominated for a third Oscar Alan Arkin are as sharp and witty, recalling “The Producers” and “Get Shorty.”  But rather than an easy way to provide contrast or comic relief, Affleck and first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio (based on an article in Wired Magazine) use those scenes to provide context, along with some tang and bite.  One masterful section of the film intercuts the two stories as the Hollywood group set up shop, secure the rights to the screenplay, and put together a staged reading to get publicity to demonstrate their bona fides while the six Americans are trapped and the exfiltration mission gets underway.  There are a lot of similarities — both sides deal in illusion, and not just the illusion of the sci-fi fantasy film they are pretending to make.  The constant lying about the project comes naturally to Arkin’s character, an old-time Hollywood guy who has seen it all and who himself has no illusions about the integrity and loyalty of those around him.  He says, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah.  Try the WGA.”

Affleck locates the film in its era with hair and clothes that evoke the time period without exaggeration or ridicule, not easy to do with 70’s styles.  He even used 70’s era film stock and borrowed some of the staging from movies of the era like “All the President’s Men,” and the opening titles are in a 70’s font.  But the film also has some important insights about what happened and about our own time, reflected in the conflicts of three decades ago.  It begins with a brief description of the events leading to the hostage crisis, emphasizing America’s support (to benefit the oil companies) of the Shah’s brutal regime, told somewhat differently than it would have been in 1979.

“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” a State Department official asks the CIA.  “This is the best bad idea we have,” is the reply from Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston).  They can’t fake any of the usual identities for the Americans because they are too easy to disprove.  The normal reasons for foreigners to be abroad — teaching, studying, aid — are not plausible.  Only something completely outrageous could be true.  And it turns out that Iranians are as in love with Hollywood movies as everyone else.  This one is a good reminder of why we all feel that way.

Parents should know that this film includes scenes of mob violence, hostages, references to terrorism, characters in peril, tense confrontations, alcohol, a lot of smoking, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did the Canadians take in the Americans?  Why did Mendez defy his orders?  What would you do if someone approached you the way Mendez approached the Hollywood insiders?

If you like this, try: “Charlie Wilson’s War”

 

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Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Politics Spies

The Campaign

Posted on August 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm

“Freedom.” “Jesus.” “America.”  And whoever you are, you are “the backbone of this country.”  This attempted political satire feels as empty as the platitudes spouted by the candidates in this R-rated comedy that, like the political system it portrays, goes for the easy and expedient and the trashy instead of the substantive or constructive.  Bill Maher, “The Daily Show,” and “The Colbert Report” have raised the bar on political comedy, so we expect more bite than this lackluster film, as generic as its title.

Will Ferrell plays four-term Congressman Cam Brady, a Democrat from North Carolina, expecting to run unopposed in the upcoming election.  But he all of a sudden becomes vulnerable when leaves a raunchy voicemail for his mistress on the wrong answering machine.  The mega-wealthy Motch brothers (played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd and inspired by the real-life Koch brothers, who fund many right-wing causes and politicians) decide they would be better off with another candidate.  So, even though he is “weird” and has no experience in politics, they pick Marty Huggins (co-producer Zach Galifianakis).  He is the son of a wealthy man (Brian Cox) who has strong connections to business and government.  The Motches send in Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), their best political operative to run the campaign, and he crisply cuts right to the point: “I’m here to make you suck less.”

Immediately, Marty’s life is turned upside down as his beloved pug dogs are replaced with a golden retriever and a black lab — both in bandanas — because those breeds have the highest approval ratings.  He and his wife and their home get extreme makeovers and Tim keeps Marty on talking points.  Meanwhile, Cam’s overconfidence and poor judgment help Marty rise in the polls.  The Motches have been using a loophole to sell goods produced in China labeled as “made in America” (based on convicted felon Jack Abramoff’s deal in the Mariana Islands).   They plot to create an enterprise zone in the district, waiving environmental, safety, and wage regulations so they can create American sweatshops with imported Chinese workers (“insourcing”).  They just need a Congressman who will do what they tell him. And their control goes even deeper than money.

It is briefly intriguing to see Dan Aykroyd taking over the kind of “Trading Places” rich bad guy brother role Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy played when he and Eddie Murphy were the leads, but the contrast just shows how little energy and bite this film in comparison.  McDermott picks things up with some dark wit and Katherine LaNasa is a highlight as Cam’s steel magnolia of a wife.  But Ferrell is deprived of his greatest asset as a performer.  He is at his best when he plays flawed men who are immature and self-centered but still likable because they really want to be liked and struggle to do the right thing.  Cam just does not care.  And Galifiniakis’ mincing affect and Southern drawl are not as witty as he intends them to be.  This is one of those campaigns when you wish the ballot had an option for “none of the above.”

Parents should know that this movie includes extremely crude humor with very explicit sexual references and situations and very strong and vulgar language, brief female nudity, drinking, drunkenness and drunk driving, smoking, comic peril and violence including snake bite and shooting injury, a lot of corruption and overall bad behavior played for comedy.

Family discussion:  What elements of the story seemed most true about our current political system?  What is the impact of “Citizens United” on elections?

If you like this, try: “In the Loop” and documentaries like “The War Room” and “Unprecedented”

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Comedy Politics Satire
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